Monday, December 07, 2009

The Problem with Infamy

To Americans of a certain age, this date never passes without notice. Obviously, I am referring to the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941. President Roosevelt famously pronounced it a "date that will live in infamy." Though long before my time, I grew up hearing of it from those who lived through that era. The significance fades, however, as later generations come to view it as just so much old history, a date to memorize for a test.

Ironically, FDR's memorable phrase was eerily similar to one made almost 55 years earlier, when King David Kalakaua was forced to cede the harbor to the Americans. His sister, later Queen Liliuokalani, termed this "a day of infamy." And it was not long (1893), before American business interests had cemented their hold on the country, forcing her abdication in one of our earliest, and most ignoble efforts in regime change.

Our national myths are of increasing fascination to me. By the word "myths," I certainly do not mean any untruth, but rather stories, and the way in which they shape and form our historical consciousness as a nation. With Pearl Harbor, the narrative emphasizes the unexpected and brutally inexplicable nature of the attack. And of course, it was. But in the simplest telling of the story, Americans were just out in the middle of the Pacific, minding our own business, if you will, when "out of nowhere" we were attacked without cause. The heroism and sacrifice of that day should never be forgotten, nor its significance diminished. And academic revisionist history simply for the sake of revisionism and/or notoriety is a tiresome by-product of our cynical post-modern world. And yet, history is a complicated thing. The only point I want to address is why we view the attack as something totally unforeseen and unimaginable (and yes, there were those, both in and out of government, who feared an attack, and large, we were caught completely off-guard.)

My point is this: nothing in history is unprecedented, save for that one Event, the very hinge of history itself, and even that was foreshadowed. The attack on Pearl Harbor--as true of other attacks before and after--was not at all arbitrary, but the natural consequence of policies, actions and events. Diplomacy That Will Live in Infamy, written by James Bradley, examines that very point. The author is himself the son of a flag-raiser of Iwo Jima, and he was long-intrigued by what motivated the Japanese attack and the resultant war in the Pacific. He found the answer not in the pre-war policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt, but rather in those of his kinsman, Theodore Roosevelt during the days of the Russo-Japanese War. Teddy Roosevelt received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in mediating the end of that war. But TR was hardly a disinterested party, strongly favoring the Japanese position. As early as 1900, Roosevelt was pushing for Japan to obtain the Korean peninsula.

President Roosevelt was no fan of the Russians: “No human beings, black, yellow or white, could be quite as untruthful, as insincere, as arrogant — in short, as untrustworthy in every way — as the Russians,” he wrote in August 1905....The Japanese, on the other hand, were “a wonderful and civilized people...entitled to stand on an absolute equality with all the other peoples of the civilized world....When, in February 1904, Japan broke off relations with Russia, President Roosevelt said publicly that he would “maintain the strictest neutrality,” but privately he wrote, “The sympathies of the United States are entirely on Japan’s side.” ”

Roosevelt's duplicity as an honest broker between the Russians and Japanese is apparent in correspondence with his son.

“I have of course concealed from everyone — literally everyone — the fact that I acted in the first place on Japan’s suggestion ... . Remember that you are to let no one know that in this matter of the peace negotiations I have acted at the request of Japan and that each step has been taken with Japan’s foreknowledge, and not merely with her approval but with her expressed desire.”

And of course, with our acquiescence the Japanese did get Korea. But Roosevelt, thought the Japanese would be content to stop there, and let the great powers--of which we were now the junior member--divvy-up the rest of Asia. The Japanese, it seems, thought differently. Bradley notes that they reference that very point in their 1941 Declaration of War: “It is a fact of history that the countries of East Asia for the past hundred years or more have been compelled to observe the status quo under the Anglo-American policy of imperialistic exploitation and to sacrifice themselves to the prosperity of the two nations. The Japanese government cannot tolerate the perpetuation of such a situation.”

The attack of Pearl Harbor can be better understood in light of Japanese actions during the Russo-Japanese War, and our strong support for them at the time. Adm. Yamamoto, who planned the 1941 attack, patterned it on their surprise assault on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur, in Manchuria, noting “favorable opportunities were gained by opening the war with a sudden attack on the main enemy fleet.” At the time, the Tsarist government protested this violation of international law. Theodore Roosevelt, however, wrote "I was thoroughly well pleased with the Japanese victory, for Japan is playing our game.”

For his efforts, Theodore Roosevelt became the first American to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. No one in Oslo was aware of his collusion with the Japanese. Bradley contends that it was his support that "emboldened them to increase their military might — and their imperial ambitions. In December 1941, the consequence of Theodore Roosevelt’s recklessness would become clear to those few who knew of the secret dealings. No one else...realized just how well Japan had indeed played 'our game.'"


Moo! said...

Interesting how expedient alliances on any level usually end up biting us on the

John said...

So true, Moo. Seems like the people we went to war against in Iraq were the very same people we supported against the Iranians only a few years earlier. Those we are now fighting in Afghanistan are the same people we armed against the Russians. Seems to me there is a lesson in there somewhere.

Moo! said...

Yeah, I remember when I was a scrawny kid in 5th grade and managed to get a big kid to be my "protector" and he ended up setting me up to get beat up by another kid during recess just so the "cool kids" could watch the fight. The world is just a big playground. sigh.

Milton T. Burton said...

It has for many years been my opinion that Teddy Roosevelt was the biggest horse's ass to ever infest the White House. And that is saying a lot.

Hilarius said...

These diplomatic tides, about faces, and alliances of convenience have little to distinguish them from the masterful movements of the Byzantine emperors throughout the centuries as they played one, and then the other nation, tribe, or faction against the other.

However, I think it fair to say, whether done for expediency or some other reason, when the Japanese Empire allied itself with the Nazi Axis it fundamentally got on the wrong side of history.

As for knowing there would be an attack - war planners at the Naval War College were wargaming Japan in the Pacific in the 1920s, and military planners knew for years that the Philippines could not really be defended and would suffer a heavy stroke. War Plan Orange and its successors had been on the books, in various forms, for almost 20 years before Pearl Harbor. In this regard you may refer to the E.B. Potter's biography of Chester Nimitz and Manchester's biography of Douglas MacArthur.

Whether or not there was "artful posturing" (which I believe there was) in the months leading up to Pearl Harbor, I'm not sure that an America that might have fallen into extreme isolationism and possibly have come to adhere to the interesting views of the extreme right wing of the Republican party of the 1930s would have been a particularly attractive result for posterity. I say that, recognizing full well that the expansion of the Executive and the rise of the modern administrative state and the "industrial-military" complex was not entirely a good thing either.

John said...

Thanks for the enlightenment. Frankly, I have not read much about the lead up to World War II in the Pacific. Concerning Pearl Harbor, as you say, there was certainly much in the way of our planning, etc. that indicated that in one sense we "knew." But obviously, in a very real sense, we didn't know either. And I do not think you can necessarily draw a straight line from Theodore Roosevelt to Pearl Harbor, as the author seems to want to do. But to me, the startling revelation was about TRs duplicity in 1905--and his Russophobia.

The comparison you make with Byzantine diplomacy is a good one. If we can keep it up another 800 years or so, then we will be in their league.